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All That You Can’t Leave Behind
Dissent: Volume 6 of the Helter Skelter Anthology of New Writing

All That You Can’t Leave Behind

Packing up my flat the night before my final flight home, I took stock of the physical remainders of my time living in India. I lost a lot of good shoes in the Mumbai mold wars; almost all my clothes were utilitarian at best. My toiletries were now mostly preventative or treatment-based; my baseline of appearance and health had plummeted.

Most of my “packing” just meant throwing out clothes, but even holding each item brought a sweat-filled, panicky memory. I threw out the pair of pants that a grasshopper had hidden inside until I was in the middle of a meeting. When he started to stir, my slap left a lime green puddle on the pale gray linen that never came out. I threw out the expensive work shirt that not only had indelible sweat stains under the arms, but down the back as well.

I left three heaps for my maid and her daughter: the red cotton, knee-length kurta that I was wearing when my landlord stared at my breasts and told me I should wear a nice, decent, good-Indian-girl top; the blue silk kurta I wore when I wanted to really impress at work; the white sleeveless kurta I wore when I gave up trying to cover my heat rash on the weekends. I left the gold earrings that my coworkers always said were looking very nice, na. Office Aunties had been pleased with those.

Helter Skelter: Cleaning Up
A little bit of Bandra clinging on for a new life in America? Photograph by Girish Menon.

I packed nicely wrapped bags of “Indian” jewellery, notebooks, bed linens, and other Oriental treasures for my family in America: jewellery, notebooks, and linens no Indian would ever use (they were very well-received).

I parted ways with my conservative pajamas; the ones I wore on the nights I curled up on the floor of my bathroom, waiting to black out from dehydration. As I microwaved an old towel to soothe my belly, I remember thinking that when they found my vomit-stained body, at least I wouldn’t be dressed inappropriately. If you’ve never microwaved a damp old towel, you’re missing out.

My collection of medicated talcum powders for my more aggressive rashes were coming with me for the time being. I said goodbye and thank you to: the giant ziplock bag of Pepto Bismol, the pill bottles of American antibiotics (thanks, azithromycin. No thanks, ciproflaxin), the packets of oral rehydration salts, and my industrial DEET bug repellant.

I did not pack my kitchen items; they would be worthless in America. If I really needed a tiny chapati rolling pin, or an idli-shaped microwave steamer, I’m sure I could figure something out.

At four a.m.—before my seven a.m. flight—the taxi company called to say something in Hinglish about how “taxi has problem”. I would, one last time, be on my own for the great Mumbai transportation crush. A single, spicy tear slid down my cheek as I contemplated spending one more night in India, or Oh Bhagwan, the Chhatrapati Shivaji motherfucking airport. Was it the tear burning my eye, or was curry finally expelling through my pores?

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Finally, I took my art down. Six 32” x 24” photographs taken by a photographer on site visits for my N.G.O. hung on my monsoon-pillaged walls: a collage of sari embroidery from a livelihoods training course, a tribal woman smiling in a financial literacy workshop, a young girl staring piercingly at a women’s empowerment meeting, the silver anklets of a Rajasthani villager, the brightly patterned door of a Maharashtrian hut. These images represent everything I love and hope for my adopted home. I remember riding home from the framers when I had them framed, clutching them in the back of a rickshaw. Of all the junk in my apartment, this was the money junk.

The photographs did not come out of the frames easily. I was naïve to think that I could so simply extricate my pleasant, hopeful memories of India. The frames were glued, stapled, and sewed to my photographs. I ripped out the staples and stitches, and tore the photographs from chunks of recycled cardboard—a little bit of Bandra clinging on for a new life in America? Hands and feet bloody and splintered, I left a pile of debris for my landlord. It was hard work taking memories like that.

Finally, the photographs were out, rolled up safely and ready to be out of India. I zipped my bags, shut the door, marched out of my flat, and woke up a taxi driver.

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